RealClearSports: Did You Feel the Draft?

By Art Spander

You tell yourself not to turn it on. That you can’t take one more analysis by Mel Kiper Jr. Can’t listen to any of the 10,000 announcers – well, it seems that many – tell us someone has a “big upside.”

Can’t sit there while the player who dropped 10 places from the projections says, “I’m just grateful to be in the NFL.” And yet, the draft is like wet paint. The sign tells us “Don’t touch,” and we tap our index finger on the fence anyway and find, indeed, the paint is wet.

And so there I was, from the start, paint figuratively on my hands, beginning at the Oakland Raiders headquarters, then moving 40 miles down I-880 to the offices of the San Francisco 49ers.

Had to arrive early. Had to get in the proper setting. Had to learn if the Detroit Lions really were going to pick Matthew Stafford. Yes, they already had signed him, but just once wouldn’t it be a hoot if a team pulled a fast one and called another player’s name, while all those people at Radio City without a life gasped and shouted as Stafford did flips in the green room?

No such luck. No practical jokes. Just a $41 million contract (recession, what recession?) and the opportunity to be a star. Or a bust.

Why is the draft so important if Alex Smith, first selection in 2005, hasn’t done much except get injured and lose games for the 49ers, not in any particular order, while Tom Brady, a sixth-rounder in 2000, has been an MVP and won three Super Bowls for the New England Patriots?

Never take a quarterback with the first pick, the experts advise. Unless he’s John Elway. Or Drew Bledsoe. But the Lions seemingly had no choice except Stafford.

If you don’t consider Mark Sanchez.

He was selected four picks after Stafford. Some people say he will prove to be the better player. Going to the New York Jets, unquestionably he’s with the better team. The Cleveland Browns, trading the No. 5 selection to the Jets, gave this draft the jolt it needed. And we needed. And maybe the player the Jets needed.

Sanchez, from USC, already was a celeb, as is virtually every top athlete in the Los Angeles area. He’ll have no problem adjusting from Sunset Boulevard to Broadway. Or replacing Brett Favre, at least mentally.

Nobody can judge a draft pick for a year or three. Look us up in 2011 and we’ll have our judgments. Still, Sanchez, given time, place and the New York tabloids, would appear to have landed perfectly. He’ll be allowed to develop with a franchise that already has developed.

The draft is usually too full of linemen, the necessary worker-bees of football. That’s how you build a team, we’re told, with left tackles and defensive ends. The heavy lifters, the “who’s he’s?” the guys ESPN’s Kiper says can stand up or knock down the man opposite him, depending on the requirement.

This time we had the two quarterbacks and a lot of receivers, the flash and dash people, including Darrius Heyward-Bey, B.J. Raji and Michael Crabtree. who was supposed to be chosen before the other two but was picked after.

Heyward-Bey, from Maryland, is fast, which is why the Raiders took him with the seventh pick, much to Kiper’s dismay. Crabtree, from Texas Tech, is productive, which is why the 49ers selected him with the 10th pick.

Once more we are reminded not to judge the soufflé before it is cooked. Brady, for example, the 199th overall selection nine years ago; Jerry Rice, who was said to lack speed; or Ryan Leaf, No. 2 in the 1998 draft, who not only failed but also had a personality like Ivan the Terrible.

We don’t know about anyone. Yet. Even though Kiper said of the Raiders pick of Heyward-Bey, “I’ve got to give it an F. I don’t know how you can pass up Michael Crabtree or if you want Hayward-Bey trade down.”

Raiders coach Tom Cable, however, said of Heyward-Bey, “This is the guy we wanted. Our biggest need was to get someone to score points.”

Crabtree scored a great many on his 41 career touchdowns. He mumbled something about showing the Raiders they were wrong immediately after Oakland took Heyward-Bey but later, after he was called by the Niners, diplomatically sighed, “I just want to work hard and prove I can do the job.”

Stafford and Sanchez, Heyward-Bey and Crabtree. Without any of them asking, two rivalries were created. They will be watched. They will be compared.

The season doesn’t begin for months, but unfortunately already we’re involved. That's what happens with the draft. Do you think there’s an upside?
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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3:59PM Art chats with Gary Radnich and Tony Bruno


“Gary and Bruno enjoy Spander plugging himself and the thought of plugging Lindsay Soto.” From April 22, 2009.

Listen here

Zito: ‘Back to doing what I do best’

SAN FRANCISCO –- He said he was fed up. No more than the fans were with him.

Barry Zito became the symbol of the San Francisco Giants’ failings, the big-ticket item on a medium-budget team who was tainted by a huge salary and doomed by a tentative fastball.

There were more things wrong with the Giants than Zito. When a team has four straight losing seasons, it isn’t because of one player. Yet Barry cost $126 million, and so at AT&T Park, he was treated roughly by spectators known mostly for their kindness.

Zito’s start Wednesday was going to be closely scrutinized, especially the way other pitchers in the rotation had performed on a successful home stand.

Four games preceded Barry, two of them shutouts, three of them victories. This was what the Giants had promised in the spring.

What Zito promised was open to skepticism. He knew it.

“Yeah,’’ agreed Zito, “I guess you could say it was important to have a good one, but it’s important to have a good one at all times.’’

Zito had a brilliant one, perhaps his best in two plus seasons with the Giants, although he begs to differ. Barry went seven innings without allowing a run or a walk. Eventually, the Giants got a pinch-hit single from Bengie Molina in the 10th to win, 1-0, over the San Diego Padres.

Reliever Brian Wilson picked up the victory. No less importantly, Barry Zito picked up the cheers. Although at 0-2 he still doesn’t have a victory, he does have his reputation. And considerably more respect. From the crowd.

His teammates insist Barry always had theirs, even when he dropped his first eight games last year and finished with a 10-17 record. Even when boos descended from the tiered stands alongside the Bay.

“It’s kind of tough when you’re in the limelight,’’ said Wilson, alluding to Zito. The two of them spent the offseason working out together.

“Today was the Zito I know,’’ Wilson continued. “The Zito I grew up watching. I’m pretty sure we can expect the same thing from all his starts now. His velocity is up. You can see the way he snaps his wrist. The hitters are a little behind it now.’’

What Zito had been behind was the eight ball. He had won a Cy Young Award in 2002 with the Oakland A’s. He seemed perfect to accept the role both as the Giants’ No. 1 pitcher and as the face of a franchise trying to escape the connection with Barry Bonds.

The problem was that Zito either couldn’t get the ball over the plate or got it over without velocity.

Thoughts of trying to justify the salary invaded his concentration. He’d make a mistake and suddenly three runs scored. It was not so much humiliating as bewildering.

“I was just trying to get back to what I do best,’’ said Zito, “which is pitch. I was getting fed up, pitching below my potential. But you just have to realize it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up.’’

He will be 31 in less than a month. He is starting his 10th major league season. He has never missed a start. For a long while, the spectators never missed a chance to start after him.

“I have to be aggressive and attack guys,’’ said Zito, who struck out seven including three in the fourth. “That’s something I did early in my career. I’m still healthy. I’m more than capable of having the same stuff I had earlier.’’

A week ago the Giants arrived home with six straight defeats and an ERA of more than seven. The suspicion was that their season was finished. Not quite.

They beat the Diamondbacks, 2-0. They lost to the Diamondbacks, 2-0. They again beat the Diamondbacks, 2-0. They beat the Padres, 8-3. Then Wednesday, to end the series, they beat the Padres, 1-0.

Five games, five runs allowed. “Pitching is what we’re built on,’’ confirmed Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “Zito hadn’t pitched well in day games here, but I think he put that all behind. He came in today and said he was going to be fine. He did the job.’’

Which is what a player is supposed to do, no matter how much he’s paid.

SF Examiner: Despite success, Sharks still get lost in Bay Area sports scene

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

This has always been the problem with hockey in California: A kid can’t go onto the playground, into the street or out in his backyard and play.

It is no exaggeration to point out around here that a surfing competition, Mavericks, receives more attention than a skating competition, the Stanley Cup.

One then is caught between fear and favor when even mentioning these words: San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks clearly are the best-run sports franchise in the Bay Area, a region where unfortunately front-office dysfunction is practically universal with perhaps another exception, the Giants.

The Sharks, indeed, are the only team in the last year in any sport with a winning record. This season they even had the most victories in the NHL, gaining something known as the Presidents’ Cup.

Yet the Sharks remain a virtual rumor except to the hockey cognoscenti, an intense, but miniscule group.

When the KNBR (680 AM) guy, Gary Radnich, is advised a caller to the program is “a hockey fan,” his immediate testing response is: “Name five players on the Sharks.”

If that is a sad commentary on our lack of sporting insight, well, we’re still musing about Joe Montana a decade and a half after his departure, but we remain clueless about another Joe — Joe Thornton — arguably the Sharks’ best player.

The Sharks sell out every game, or near enough to it, so nobody can be accused of distorting the truth when saying HP Pavilion is filled. But is anybody interested beyond the same 17,000-plus that attend?

And are the Sharks hurt as much by their locale as by their sport?

This is not a knock against San Jose, the most populous city north of Los Angeles. But what if the Sharks played in San Francisco, where they began? Would there be greater cachet? Undeniably there would be greater access for those in The City or Oakland or Marin.

The hockey crowd is wonderfully fanatical. The noise created when the Sharks score a goal will vibrate your eyeballs. It outdoes the roads from Warriors fans in the short-lived playoff of two years past or Giants rooters when Barry Bonds was driving balls into the stands.

Still, north of San Carlos, the team and the game seem more afterthought than necessity.

You hear people arguing about the Niners and Raiders draft picks, complaining because the Giants can’t get a big bat. But you don’t hear anyone, on air at least, discussing the Sharks.

The antidote surely would be for the Sharks to reach the Stanley Cup finals for once. Nobody jumps on bandwagons with the alacrity displayed by the fickle folk in this region who haven’t had a championship in any sport for years.

No playoffs recently for the Giants, A’s, Niners, Raiders or Warriors? Hey, Martha, what do they call that little black rubber thing people hit with sticks, and what is icing anyway?

The Sharks, however, lost the first two games of their current best-of-seven playoff series against Anaheim. Instead of becoming saviors for their sport in this land of milk, honey and growing unemployment, they seemed destined to be part of continuing parade of failures.

Just like the other teams in the Bay Area, except with less recognition.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and E-mail him at

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company

RealClearSports: Washington Baseball: A 'Natinal' Disgrace

By Art Spander

Thirty years ago the great Frank Deford wrote of our Nation’s Capital: (1) Until recently Washington was a sleepy Southern Town. (2) It is recession-proof. (3) Nobody ever goes home.

To Mr. Deford’s three truths we add a fourth: Whatever the name of the baseball team and no matter who is on the roster, it has always been terrible.

But we’re only going back as far as the 19th century.

The newest entry, the Nationals – or as their name was misspelled on the front of some uniforms the other night, the “Natinals” – finally won another game. Its second in 12 attempts. And because of rain delays and a constant drizzle, the attendance at Nationals Park was 12,473. The smallest in its history.

But hang around. The old Senators used to have a pitcher, Walter Johnson, known as “The Big Train.” Now they’ve got a seamstress who’s “The Big Typo.”

These Nationals only have been in town five seasons. They used to be called the Expos and played in Montreal, another city that embraced baseball with, well, if that was passion, you’d hate to attempt to describe apathy.

Some would suggest five years isn’t long enough to judge the sport’s viability in a particular location. Let us then rummage through history.

We start with the Washington Senators, also called the Nationals, who were dropped from the National League in 1900 and accepted in the new American League in 1901. There used to be a maxim about Washington – General George, not the town on the Potomac. He was “First in War, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Corny, but there was no Comedy Central or YouTube in those days.

The Senators went to the World Series in1933, and after that had only two winning seasons in the next 25. The adage was revised to “Washington, First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

Novelist Douglas Wallop (now is that a baseball name or not?) in 1954 expressed the frustrations of Senators partisans with the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” An aging fan sells his soul to the devil to help the Nats beat the hated New Yorkers. America loved it more when it was transformed into the musical “Damn Yankees.”

“Ya gotta have heart,” the actor-ballplayers sang, which they had. And with “Shoeless” Joe Hardy, they also had a superstar before the creation of the word itself. Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo., a combination of DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, with a little A-Rod for good measure.

In 1960 those Senators, the real ones, not the stage version, were shifted to Minneapolis to become the Twins and recession-proof Washington was awarded an expansion franchise to be named, lo, the Senators. Confusing, but no one said the people in charge of baseball ever made a lot of sense.

Senators II lasted only a decade, until 1971, when they were moved to Texas and labeled the Rangers. So Washington was without our national pastime (if you ignore lobbying) another 25 years until the Expos crossed the border at the end of 2004.

Maybe instead of the Nationals, the ball club should have been called the Generals, who are the Harlem Globetrotters’ nightly foils. The Generals dropped something like 13,000 games from the 1950s to the 1990s. The Nats have a ways to go, but nothing’s out of reach. Including the skimming of signing bonuses from the Nationals’ Dominican prospects. Not enough the franchise is awful, some of the people involved apparently are unethical.

Jim Bowden, then the Nationals general manager – and a splendid job he had done – resigned at the beginning of March in the wake of investigations of whether baseball scouts and executives accepted kickbacks from the bonuses. As he departed, Bowden, reading a statement, denied “false allegations, insinuations and innuendoes by the press. There have been no charges made, and there has been no indication that parties have found any wrongdoing on my part.”

Not a lot of right-doing either, if you study the Nats’ record. But Washington, the city, not the general nor the Generals, seemingly has become immune to losing. It’s in the District of Columbia’s baseball DNA. For a hundred years Washington has lost either lost games or teams.

Now it has a relatively new team that’s a reject from Montreal, a team that opened the season with seven straight defeats and is so star-crossed it can’t even have the nickname spelled correctly on the home uniforms of Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman.

Obviously in any new version of “Damn Yankees,” the old guy sells his soul for a tailor who can pass a spelling bee.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009